Monday
Jan052015

Do Not Rise

By Beth Bachmann


 

University of Pittsburgh Press
January 2015
978-0822963288


Reviewed by Benjamin Landry


 

Beth Bachmann is not afraid to write dangerously. Of course, anyone who has read her first collection, Temper, about the murder of her sister, may suspect that the decision to write dangerously might have been no choice at all. Here is a poet who has had violence foisted upon her, and the subsequent poems read like an attempt to first wrest meaning from the heinous event, and when that fails, to construct a memorial and a new life out of language. In the anti-war experiment Do Not Rise, Bachmann's concerns are similar, but the stakes are more civic than personal. In both collections, Bachmann marches language to the very edge: sometimes, it seems that meaning is about to give out; at other times, the significations proliferate so radically that one feels blinded. In these detonated moments, we are asked to build for ourselves, along architectures that either open us out to humanity or wall us off. In this sense, Bachmann forces the reader to choose among moral possibilities. How, exactly, does she do it?

Part of Bachmann's precise methodology involves drawing our attention to the constructedness of language. A number of the poems include physical caesurae of varying lengths, as we see in "Spill":

heaven should have as much blood     beloved block after block
  we walk around

my neck a cut ruby a whole drop a     hundred years you said the
  ponies

were blue I said under the skin you said under the sky        last
  night I dreamt of swimming  

At each of these resting moments, we are asked to weigh the syntactical allegiance of the previous and impending clause, to guess, for instance, if "blood" more properly constitutes an earthly eroticism in the preceding vision of "heaven" or if it belongs to the private intimacy of the "blood     beloved" or if it qualifies a vision of aftermath, an oath uttered amidst ravaged "block after block." Of course, it would be impossible to choose among these options, and to do so would be to short-circuit poetry's function; poetry always says yes.

In the collection's first poem, "Crisis," the approach is impressionistic, and the effect is anaphoric, rather than directional.

The air is hot and then it's cold.
The water wants out so open
your mouth and say, snow.
The water wants out right there
on the tongue. The flaw is always
breaking away. Watch the fire [. . .]

Bachmann employs the second person to underscore the reader's muteness, the degree to which we are in thrall to the language she parses out to us. The poem—employing, as it does, the rudimentary elements—has the feel of an alchemical recipe. Causal relationships occur within the sentences but do not seem to bear up across them. And yet, as in the alchemical theory, the end result is greater than the sum of its parts. Some combination of forces leaves us in a scene of "[f]ragment, then drift or alarm." The pressures that combine in war, Bachmann suggests, are difficult to trace, but the result is devastating and irrefutable. In terms of technique, Bachmann's approach shares a deconstructive impulse with language poetry, which has fallen out of favor in recent decades. But language poetry's fatal flaws—its solipsism, its insistence on the arbitrariness of the sign to the point of negating meaning—are not in evidence here. Bachmann's ultimate intention is to force us to enact the difficult work of construction, to pick up the pieces ourselves.

If a stylistic predilection for the fragment represents Bachmann's first danger, her second—a conception of violence that approaches aestheticization—is the most complicated and potentially hazardous. In "Bird," war is likened to "a bower of toy soldiers, a song    of gunfire [. . .] a quiet breaking [. . .] metal   laden and halved [. . .] bones undressed in   plaster." It's a prettified vision of the spoils of conflict. Is the bucolic metaphor of nest building sufficiently ironic to imply critique? Much depends on whether the perspective is one of the veteran or civilian. If the poem is saved from aestheticization, it may only be as a vision of war recollected after a significant interval of peace. In any case, Bachmann takes a substantial risk.

The stakes are also critical when Bachmann conflates the personal and the civic in a poem like "Wild":

Jar my mouth with your finger—[. . .]
burrow in what she laid
and sealed with mud—little bandage holding
the shape with blood—break it apart—one soldier locked to
  another:
one living, one dead. I said to the god,
I want you inside of me everywhere at once

The poem is a raucous mixture of intimacies: the generative intimacy of sex, the pious intimacy of devotion, the morbid intimacy of war-killing. It's a conflation that makes one flinch at its surface, but it takes on a constructive dimension when considered in the context of return and reintegration. How does one reclaim intimacy after one has killed?

There are plenty of poems in Do Not Rise that confront war in a more straightforward manner. One standout is the masterfully rendered "Humiliation," which explores the disproportionate costs of war on women. "Where are the women in this war?" the poem asks, before it answers its own question a few lines later: "Where do you think all that blood comes from?" In all of the known ways in which women are herded, dispossessed and abused, especially in time of war, the fact that we take for granted—the humanizing fact that necessarily must be ignored in order for war to take place—is that the men who do the official dying and killing are of women born, made of their bodies. This is the life-giving force that war cancels out.

But the most powerful of Bachmann's new poems are those that harness poetry's unique powers of signification. "Revolution" begins with an ominous reading of cloud forms, which signal the collection's dark thematic concerns: "anvil, horsetail, blood clot." It elaborates:  

          Some clouds are all energy we
  do not want everyone to possess. Little boy, keep your teeth

in your mouth. You are not my flesh and blood. Some flowers
  mimic a
   dead horse to imprison the blowfly. Take the flower first.

The poem acknowledges, insists upon, language's crucial role in conflict. Here, 'take' can mean 'consider,' 'capture' and/or 'destroy,' each of which can be applied to disconcerting effect to the 'little boy,' in the guise of the flower. Bachmann's cloud forms remind us that we see what we want to—including the roles of aggressor and defendant—in conflict, which we recast through the choices of language.

The poems in Do Not Rise make us uncomfortable with war, as we deserve to be. Whereas Temper was obsessed with the narrative of a singular traumatic event, with allusions to diagrams and timelines, Do Not Rise embraces impressionism and makes particular use of elision. Some of its imagery is virtually timeless—the "hulls," "horses," "armor," "gilt-leather," and "pony-shaped birdcage" recall the Iliad and Odyssey. In addition to the obvious ravages to theaters of conflict, Bachmann suggests that war is a placeless malignancy that follows soldiers home (along these lines, one of the last poems, "Welcome Home (Demobilization)," is worth the price of admission). It's a fierce collection, one that reminds us of poetry's vital place in processing our never-ending wars.